Genre: Quasi-historical Supernatural Drama
review in one breath
Abe no Seimei, Japan's greatest Yin Yang Master is back! And this time he must battle the evil reincarnation of one of Shinto's most primordial deities!
It has been two years since director Takita Yojiro treated audiences to the legendary, mystical world of Abe no Seimei in Onmyoji. Based on the written work of author Yumemakura Baku, Onmyoji and Onmyoji 2 follow the adventures of "Abe no Seimei", an actual historical figure who provided astrological and magical counsel to the Daimyo during the Heian period. (For a more thorough treatment of Abe no Seimei and the historical setting of these films, please see my Onmyoji review.)
Abe no Seimei is aptly played by Nomura Mansai, heir apparent of the highly esteemed Kyogen School of traditional Japanese theater. Nomura has literally been trained from earliest childhood in the traditional Bunraku and Noh traditions and is widely perceived as being unparalleled in skill in his field. Thus he stands to inherit the role of master of the rather ancient Kyogen tradition. Although very little of Nomura's training was utilized in the prequel, director Takita fully taps into this traditional art form and its leading artisan in Onmyoji 2. To Western audiences, this infusion of traditional dance results in a more melodramatic feel while for Japanese audiences it provides a chance to admire Nomura's traditional art form within the context of a contemporary popular film.
The story of Onmyoji 2 revolves around the consequences of the Tokugawa Mikado's murderous crimes against a ultra-religious Shinto community. In order to loot the community's invaluable treasures of ancient sacred objects, the Daimyo slaughtered the entire remote village, including women amd children. However, deep within the sacred cavern below the village, a Shinto priest is furiously invoking the ancient Dragon God to indwell his newborn son Susa (Ichihara Hayato) and thereby preserve and eventually avenge the priest's lineage and religion. Though the priest successfully calls the fiery god from its slumber, it indwells simultaneously both Susa and his elder sister (Ame)Himiko (Fukada Ky�ko). The Dragon God distributes half its power to each and emblazons half its 8-headed symbol on each child's arm.
Fast forward 18 years.
Abe no Seimei and his flute-playing, sword-flailing compadre Minamoto no Hiromasa (Ito Hideaki) are discussing the growing rumors of a divine healer somewhere in the forests able to heal people of disease. The town's folk are also buzzing about the strange and violent death of a Daimyo official despite the presence of many guards surrounding him. We witness the official's body being thrown, screaming, with incredible force from his palladin, high into the air, only to land in a crumpled heap. When Abe and Hiromasa begin to investigate these matters, they encounter a skilled biwa player by the name of Susa. Thrilled with Susa's ability, Hiromasa quickly whips out his shakuhachi (flute) and the duo commences the creepiest jam session known to western film. Later, when Abe sets a Yin Yang trap for the mysterious killer, they instead trap a hideous monster who, through Abe's control of the elements, reverts temporarily back into their good friend Susa. As the magical trap weakens due a characteristic blunder by Hiromasa, Abe hears the distant demonic chants of the forest healer.
Meanwhile, the Mikado's daughter Himiko, who has exhibited extraordinary healing powers from childhood, has recently started sleep walking into the forest in the wee hours of the night.
Onmyoji 2 presents perhaps the most literal representation of Shinto cosmology that I have encountered in a movie. Most of the themes derive straight from the Kojiki, the primary Shinto text. Among other things, the Kojiki records the first generations of deities which intermingled with the world's history. Chief among these was the goddess Ame no Terasu Omi Kami (the god which shines in heaven). Ame no Terasu, the Sun Goddess, is the primary god of the Shinto religion and continues to be represented by the symbol of the sun on the nation's flag. Ame no Terasu had two brothers, one of which was the formidable and unruly Susa no Wo, who was given reign over the seas. His destructive power is consistently manifested in the many tsunami and typhoons which have historically plagued Japan. Onmyoji 2 revolves around the representation of Susa, the biwa-player turned demon god extraordinaire as the incarnation of Susa no Wo, and (Ame)Himiko as the incarnation of Ame no Terasu.
The Kojiki records an incident wherein the Sun Goddess hid herself in a cave and refused to come out. The various other deities gathered around the mouth of the cave, increasingly concerned about the perpetual darkness upon the world. After conferring amongst themselves, the deities decided to coerce Ame no Terasu out of the cave by holding a loud (and some say raunchy) dance just outside the cave. At the sound of the laughter, drums and instruments, Ame no Terasu peeked her head out and the others quickly grabbed her and pulled her from the cave, engulfing the world in sunlight. This story has set a precedent in Shinto and traditional Japanese culture wherein dance and music are utilized not only for entertainment but for religious ceremony.
It is this type of religious dance that Nomura Mansai is trained in and which appears prominently in Onmyoji 2. Faced with the retributive reincarnation of Susa no Wo, Abe no Seimei (Nomura) has no recourse but to resurrect the only one capable of taming this power, the goddess Ame no Terasu. Such a resurrection requires Seimei to don traditional female garb representing Ame no Terasu replete with flowing hair and make-up. Nomura then engages in a traditional form of dance onscreen in order to resurrect the primordial goddess. In a real sense, this dance is likely the highlight of the film for Japanese audiences and undoubtedly hearkens to deeply ingrained intuitions regarding sacred Shinto traditions.
Onmyoji 2 runs approximately 115 minutes in length and as such is fairly epic in scale. The storyline is well developed (thanks to its dependence upon author Yumemakura) and the characters are compelling. Most of the special effects are rather modest with the exception of the too-brief scenes of Susa's final and incredible retribution upon the Mikado's palaces in Kyoto and the resurrection of Ame no Terasu accompanied by Nomura's traditional dance.
All in all this film can easily be recommended for its cultural value as a historical depiction. The storyline is interesting and has enough supernatural elements to keep audiences engaged. This is, however, intended as a very mainstream film (as was Onmyoji) and in many ways would be characterized as belonging much more to the "drama" genre than to the "horror" or "samurai" genres.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|This film heavily relies upon (and reenacts) the Kojiki narrative. Nomura's traditional Shinto dance is clearly a cultural asset here.||One amazingly twisted aristocrat. General malaise divinely perpetrated upon the high-brow Mikado class.||No libidinous Yin Yang stuff here. (Though Abe does eventually break out the mascara and engage in a little cross-dressing!)||An interesting, albeit mainstream tale involving the legendary diviner, Abe no Seimei, pitted against one of Shinto's most formidable deities. And check out the real stairway to heaven!|